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Summit to spotlight EU-Russia row over Soviet-era states

28 november 2013, 12:31
0
An EU summit designed to draw six ex-Soviet states to the West opens with its ambitions dented Thursday after Ukraine, the biggest of the six, caved into Moscow to hand Europe a mighty "Nyet", AFP reports .

Kiev's surprise decision days before the summit to scrap a landmark political and trade deal with the European Union that was years in the making, set off a war of words between East and West, and sparked the biggest protests seen in Ukraine in a decade.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has pledged nonetheless to join leaders of the 28-nation bloc at the two-day Eastern Partnership summit in the capital of Lithuania, one of several ex-Soviet EU states campaigning to extend the bloc's sphere of influence.

Ukraine said Wednesday it still wanted to reach a historic deal on closer ties with the European Union, as the mass protests over the move to scrap the pact went into a fourth day.

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov's announcement failed to appease protesters who blockaded the government building during Wednesday's cabinet session demanding Kiev sign the political and free trade deal at the two-day summit in Vilnius.

Keen to show eastern Europe that the summit matters, almost all EU leaders will attend despite the snub -- including the EU "Big Three", Britain, France and Germany.

As the EU-Russia tussle flared, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Russia not to view Europe's ties with Moscow's neighbours as a threat.

"We should overcome the mentality 'either us or them.' The Cold War is over," she said. "We should now overcome the last remnants of the Cold War and I'll participate in this with pleasure."

At stake are ties also with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Belarus -- keen to strike trade and aid deals or win visa-free travel arrangements with the EU.

But vast Ukraine, with its 45 million people, industry and farms, was the jewel in the crown of the EU's five-year-old Eastern Partnership policy. "If UKraine drops out it will be a glass half empty," said Steven Blockmans of the Centre for European Policy Studies."

On the eve of the summit, and as mass pro-EU protests continued for a fourth day, Ukraine said it still wanted to do the deal and would continue reforms demanded by Brussels in exchange for an Association Agreement and Free Trade Deal.

"Our offer stays on the table," said the EU's Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele. "A new date for signing could be at a next EU-UKraine summit before the spring."

However, politicians and analysts alike see little chance of that in the months or even years to come.

"Without an agreement with Ukraine at this summit the Eastern Partnership will be less impressive, there will be less enthusiasm," said Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius.

"The momentum may be lost."

Yanukovych says the EU offered insufficient compensation for the damages Ukraine would suffer by diluting economic ties with former master Russia.

Brussels says that in months of economic arm-twisting by Moscow on its neighbour, Kiev's exports to Russia dropped 25 percent, some firms registering even a 40 percent fall. Ukraine also is heavily dependent on Russia's natural gas.

Diplomats fear Moscow could also pressure smaller Georgia and Moldova in the months to come after the two initial deals with the EU at the summit. A final statement is expected to offer a veiled warning to President Vladimir Putin to avoid meddling in the future.

The EU for its part has come under stiff criticism for its handling of negotiations with Ukraine's Yanukovych, seen as having played both sides in his own interest of winning elections in 2015.

"We were so intent on coming to a common policy that we forgot to look at was happening in Ukraine," said an Eastern European diplomat close to the negotiations who asked not to be identified.

Some analysts say the EU went too far in insisting that Yanukovych release his arch-enemy, jailed opposition leader and former premier Yulia Tymoshenko.

The six ex-Soviet states too were disappointed not to be clearly offered EU membership at the end of the line, a poltically sensitive issue in many European states where far-right anti-foreigner parties are on the rise.

But others say the East-West row over Ukraine has shown the real face of Russian diplomacy.

"The Ukraine case will make many governments in the region and elsewhere think twice about their dealings with Moscow,"@ said Carnegie Europe director Jan Techau.

"Nothing is yet lost for the EU," he added. "The EU also went through an enormous test of unity and came out intact."

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